Friday, July 29, 2016

Introduction, by Tim Billo (Instructor)

The group poses on Sentinel Peak, >20 trail miles from any road, with Mount Anderson in the background. From our high perch here in the inner core of the Olympic mountains, we looked down on soaring ravens, saw swallowtail butterflies rising and twirling together along the adjacent cliff face, found an alpine flower species endemic to the Olympic Mountains (isolated on high ridges by past climate changes), looked across the now free-flowing Elwha River and that valley's swathe of unbroken lowland forests, and contemplated the effects of anthropogenic climate change on Anderson's Eel Glacier and surrounding ecosystems. We would also take time here to individually think and write about the value of large ecosystem preserves (such as Olympic National Park), and the kind of remote wilderness recreation experience they afford as humanity enters the Anthropocene, and as nearby Seattle prepares to take on another 1.5 million people over the next 25 years.  Photo Credit: Tim Billo (all photos in this blog are by Tim Billo unless otherwise specified)

             This blog documents the fourth annual offering (click here and  here for previous years' blogs, especially to compare to last year's unusual heat and drought conditions) of the interdisciplinary summer field course, ENVIR 495C/HONORS 220B: Landscape Change in the Pacific Northwest, offered by the University of Washington Environmental Studies Program and Interdisciplinary Honors Program. The course, taught primarily through the lens of a nine-day backpacking trip (July 9-17, 2016) in Olympic National Park, explores changes in the regional landscape in the distant (back to the last ice age) and recent (the last 150 years of European settlement and industrialization) past, and what these recent human-induced changes mean for our future, from ecological, psychological, and philosophical standpoints. In short, the course uses the Olympic Peninsula’s over one million contiguous acres of roadless land, as a "baseline" for understanding global change in the Anthropocene, and thinking about where we are headed as a species at this critical juncture in Earth's history. This year, the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, we were especially interested in exploring the history of wilderness preservation in national parks, and how the concept of “wilderness” (which I’ll talk about in the next paragraph), especially in high profile national parks, has shaped the American conservation movement (often to the exclusion of historically marginalized groups) and psyche--particularly our relationship to nature. We also explored challenges the National Park Service is facing now and likely to face over the next 100 years.
            It is worth noting that before beginning our hiking journey, we visited the Jamestown S’Klallam reservation near Sequim to learn about S’Klallam history and culture—especially their cultural and ecological relationships to the local landscape—and to acknowledge that we would be spending the next 9 days traveling through the homelands of the S’Klallam people. We would also continue wrestling with contentious discussion topic of  “wilderness” as a received concept (rather than a true place or state of nature) which makes sense only in the context of European occupation of the landscape, beginning in earnest some 200 years ago here in the northwest with Captain Vancouver’s detailed descriptions of the “pristine” landscapes of the Puget Sound (effectively refusing to acknowledge the real impact that Native Americans had in shaping much of what he was seeing—still I think we can grant him that by the standard of what was to come only 100 years later, or even what he was used to seeing in England at the time, the landscape was quite pristine). While wilderness parks such as Olympic represent a huge victory for society in the face of a culture that viewed the landscape as one giant “land-grab” by and for private interests, the result of viewing our wilderness national parks as “pristine” has been the creation of preserves that for the most part hold people as “unnatural”. One tragic consequence has been the barring of Native Americans from their traditional homelands, including traditional food sources and sometimes even an entire way of life. Meanwhile these homelands were maintained as a recreational outlet for all, although in reality mainly for a new class of wealthy urbanites seeking to test their mettle in an industrial era bereft of physical challenge and nature experience. In its most perverse extreme, some argue that the creation of absolute wilderness preserves has led to an excuse for the reckless management of matrix lands outside of the preserves, in our case right up to the boundary of Olympic National Park, with devastating consequences for some species, such as the Northern Spotted Owl. The point of our journey, however, was to explore these ideas for ourselves, and ask what the relevance of wilderness--the place and the concept-- is in today's world, a world where wilderness is seeing more visitors than ever before, but far fewer visitors per capita than ever before.
            Because most students work full-time summer jobs, the only required in-person meeting for the course was the 9 day backpacking trip, from Saturday through to the Sunday on the following weekend—so students effectively had to get one week off from work. The academic portion of the course, however, included 3 weeks of online work prior to the trip, and several online reflective/research assignments following the trip. The course began with a series of four brief reading assignments and online discussions designed to introduce students to relevant course topics: 1) historical literature of wilderness (think Thoreau, Muir, Leopold, and some other classic texts), 2) Post-modern critiques of wilderness including William Cronon’s famous essay “The Trouble with Wilderness”, and more recently a 2011 essay by Seattle resident and Nature Conservancy scientist, Peter Kareiva: “Conservation in the Anthropocene: Beyond Solitude and Fragility”, 3) reasons, ramifications, and solutions to the lack of cultural/ethnic diversity in national park visitation and national park employment, spurred in part by Seattle writer/activist Glenn Nelson’s editorial “Why Are Our Parks so White?”, and 4) literature of the Olympic Peninsula, including excerpts from William Dietrich’s interview with a Forks logger in his book, Final Forest, human history/culture of the Olympic Peninsula and Olympic National Park from Tim McNulty’s Olympic National Park: A Natural History, and excerpts from journals of early explorers (including John Muir, the Press Expedition, and Archibald Menzies). The students were also given access to a vast array of other relevant literature, including management plans for Olympic National Park, which they used as they planned discussions they would lead on the trip, and essays to be completed following the trip.
            During the course, we spent our days studying natural history, and observing the effects of climate change (past and present) and various landscape management practices (past and present) on species and ecosystems. For reflective purposes, we also spent portions of some days alone; hiking, thinking, and writing in inspirational places along the hiking route. We spent our evenings in student-led discussions of topics chosen by the students themselves, often incorporating outside quotes and background studies as a way to introduce the topic and provide more fodder for discussion. Discussion topics this year included: 1) ecology of exotic, or debatedly exotic, species in Olympic National Park, such as Mountain Goats and Barred Owls respectively, and issues surrounding their management, 2) general philosophies governing human management of “wilderness”—which by literal interpretation of the Wilderness Act, should not be a managed space—including how to regulate human visitation rates and activities while managing for “enjoyment” for all—a mandate of the National Park Service, 3) the wilderness preservation movement and ramifications of the figurative (and sometimes literal) separation of man from nature, 4) nature and wilderness as an antidote to psychological health issues in the Anthropocene, 5) how to make wilderness national parks available and relevant to diverse populations broadly defined (including local and low-income communities, and people of color), 6) the use of gender stereotypes to personify nature and wilderness, and how these gender stereotypes have affected the exploitation or preservation of nature, as well as how gender stereotypes historically and currently affect the ability of women to recreate and work in wilderness, and 7) the Seattle 2035 plan and housing equality as a foundation for better conservation of non-wilderness spaces and a healthy regional landscape. Individual blog entries will further document the breadth and depth of daily discussions.  
            One of the joys of this course for me is to re-visit the same places year after year to understand the process of change on both short and long time scales. While last year was one of the driest years on record in the Olympics (not due to lack of winter precipitation, but due mainly to record warm temperatures causing winter precipitation to fall as rain) and hottest the world has ever experienced in recorded history, this year the terrain sported a healthy snowpack left over from the winter. Despite a warm spring, high north-facing basins still held plenty of snow and streams were flowing well. This year (again, unlike last year) there were no wildfires burning in the park (although as I write this, some small lightning caused fires have just started). One major theme of the course is climate change (past, present, and future), and we were excited to return this year to see, among other things, how a remnant glacier we discovered last year was faring after last year's heat and drought. Ice worms, a direct legacy of the last ice age (explained later in the blog), and one of the animals most endangered by glacial recession in the Pacific Northwest, are one indication of the presence of glacial ice. We were stunned to find that where we had found hundreds of ice worms last year, we were hard pressed to find only 5 this year, indicating that this glacier had melted down to near nothing by the end of last summer--indicative of trends in loss of glacial ice all over the northwest, which should give us pause as we think about future ramifications for late summer streamflow for salmon, drinking water, and irrigation. I was also saddened to discover that a 700 year old tree that I had come to know along our route over the years, a relict of a previous climate regime, had finally come to its end and toppled across our trail. But I look forward to future years of watching it gradually return to the soil.
              The Olympic Mountains are an especially rewarding place for a biologist. Separated from the Cascades and Rockies by a water barrier today, and historically by ice sheets flowing through the Puget Trough and Strait of Juan de Fuca as recently as only 16,500 years ago (sounds like a long time ago, but really a geologic "eye-blink" and not that many generations ago for our longest lived trees!), the Olympic Mountains are like an evolutionary laboratory. During the last ice age, many of the highest ridges and some valley bottoms remained ice free, providing refugia for many local species, as well as arctic species that had moved south. Many of these species can still be found today in small relictual populations in the Olympic Mountains, and some have evolved in isolation to become distinct from their nearest relatives in the Cascades, Rockies, or Arctic. On this course, we have been able to study rare disjunct populations of Rocky Mountain Juniper, Engelmann Spruce, and Arctic Willow, as well as species that have evolved into forms endemic to the Olympic Mountains (including iconic alpine plant species such as the Piper’s Bellflower, Flett's Violet, and Cotton's Milkvetch, and iconic mammals such as the Olympic Marmot). Plant and animal species isolated on high ridges and in alpine terrain will be some of the first to go extinct given current projections for human-induced climate change, and land management agencies such as the Park Service will face an agonizing conundrum in the next 100 years whether or not to move species to places more climatically amenable (assuming they are incapable of dispersal themselves, and assuming that moving them doesn't endanger other species that are native to the new location), or to let them go extinct one by one. In the meantime, many of these species are also threatened directly by the presence of non-native goats, and indirectly by the extermination of top predators such as the Gray Wolf. Whether we have a moral or ecological imperative eradicate, move, or re-introduce organisms to save them and/or the ecosystem, is a question which we explore on the course, especially in “wilderness” areas which are traditionally thought of as areas where nature can and should be left to take care of itself.
            Between 1895 and 2015, the Seattle area grew from 40,000 people to over 4.2 million. In the next 25 years, Seattle will grow by another 1.5 million. Virtually every piece of accessible habitat in the lowlands of the Puget Trough has been severely impacted by humans at one time or another, and in some cases irrevocably. “Wilderness” controversies aside, it was by stroke of luck (due in part to the inaccessibility of the terrain in the early days), and a big dash of courage from some forward-thinking leaders around the turn of the 19th Century and early 20th Century, that Olympic National Park was saved from the ax and saw. Only 25 miles as the crow (or eagle) flies from Seattle, an international hub of high tech industry, one can begin a walk into the Olympic Mountains, a wilderness area of over 1 million contiguous acres (approximately 1600 sq miles), and (unlike the Cascade Range) not bisected by any roads. It is this short gradient from ultra-urban to wilderness, that makes the region such an appealing place to live, as well as a unique place to reflect on landscape change (past, present, and future), and ramifications of this change (namely, the loss of "wild" spaces) for society in the Anthropocene. Regardless of your feelings about the “wilderness” concept, we must recognize the value of the “untrammeled” spaces the National Park Service has preserved for all people from all walks of life to experience, and the opportunity that this has afforded us as a society to decide how we will use and value these spaces over the next 100 years or more. As you’ll see in this blog, every student, regardless of background or pre-conceived notion of what wilderness is about, came away profoundly changed, renewed, and empowered by this experience. There are not many outlets in today’s world that have the ability to affect that kind of change on a person. It is clear to me that wilderness remains relevant--at least to those lucky enough to experience it as per-capita wilderness visitation declines-- and that one of the current and future challenges of the Park Service is in how to preserve the integrity of the wilderness resource/experience, while ensuring that our growing population, ever more in need of a wilderness outlet, can still freely access it and in such a way that it is not "loved to death".
            It was a pleasure hiking with and learning from the 10 inspirational students from a variety of majors, who embraced the physical, mental, and academic challenges of the course. Kramer Canup, a former student and teaching assistant on several of my courses, and recent UW Bothell Environmental Studies graduate, provided additional leadership, knowledge, and enthusiasm as a Teaching Assistant. Each student has written about one day of the trip, and offered additional personal thoughts on wilderness. I have spent at least 200 days traveling in the backcountry of Olympic National Park over the last 15 years, and always enjoy getting to know the landscape, its moods, its changes, and its species more intimately, while encouraging others to do the same. I also relish the opportunity for reflection on what our local wilderness areas teach me about myself and the greater landscape of "home", as well as the many services our wildernesses offer society, from the ecological to the psychological. I especially enjoy introducing wild spaces to students who have not had the opportunity to experience them before. Extended wilderness travel offers us rare time and space (both of which are commodities in today's world) to think deeply about how we might move forward as a society at this critical juncture in earth's history, the beginning of the Anthropocene era. It is my hope that this blog conveys the power of the wilderness learning experience and its deep impact on the lives of those who are lucky enough to experience it. For those who do not have the opportunity to experience it, perhaps this blog will bring them a step closer.

If you have questions about this course, or anything you have seen here, feel free to contact me at timbillo (at)

Some stats from our trip:
Mileage Covered: ~45 miles
Number of Days in Wilderness: 9
Number of Person-Nights in Wilderness: (12 people x 8 nights) = 96 (for reference, 96 was our contribution to the astounding 40,000 person nights a year typically recorded in Olympic National Park's backcountry!)
Number of people encountered on the trail excluding the first and last day of the trip: 4
Cumulative altitude gained: ~16,600 feet (about 15,900 feet were lost)
Highest altitude attained: ~6,700 feet
Number of bird species observed: 47
Number of bears observed: 0; most years we observe 1 or 2.
Number of mountain goats observed: 0; most years we observe 1 or 2.
Number of deer observed this year: >9
Number of golden eagles observed this year: 0; most years we observe 1 or 2
Number of bald eagles observed: 1 (at Cedar Lake, where one typically flies in daily to dine on introduced fish).
Number of tailed frogs: at least 10—a record high for us.
Number of salamanders of any kind: 0—a record low for us.

More detailed species lists will be posted at a later date.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Day 1: Seattle to Deer Park to Three Forks

by Madeline Kernan

The boundary of Olympic National Park along the Deer Park Road is clear cut (pun intended!). Well, technically this is not a clear cut, although to the untrained eye, it is hard to know the difference. This "new forestry"style cut in the Washington DNR land (right side of photo) has actually left some trees standing as a way to more quickly regenerate second growth forest with complex structure that most wildlife prefers. Note the national park sign is riddled with bullet holes--an expression of discontent with the ownership of the land behind it?

When I got to the parking lot of Wallace Hall on Saturday morning, the couple of students who knew each other were chatting, a few people were getting supplies out of Tim’s office, and a few more of us (like me) were standing around, not quite sure what to do with ourselves. Most people seemed to have stayed up late packing and were more than a little shocked that the trip had come up so fast. Something had gone wrong with one of our van reservations, so our TA, Kramer, went back to his house to grab his truck. However, we were soon on the move and headed toward our ferry. I rode in the UW van (which we would later return to Seattle, looking deeply unofficial, as though we had borrowed it to drive through a swamp) with Tim, Jacob, Emi, Minji, Abby, Kate, and Kelly. Emi was sitting on the floor between Abby and Minji for a bit of the ride, before she migrated to Kramer’s truck, where the little seat between the driver’s and passenger’s found an inhabitant. Jacob helped navigate us to the downtown Seattle ferry terminal, and when we got onboard, everyone got out of the cars for our first discussion of the trip. We stood on the deck, huddled together a bit as the cool morning breezes blew on our rain jackets. Tim talked to us about the glacial history of the Puget Sound, and the landing of the Denny Party (and encounter with Chief Sealth) at Alki Beach on a rainy November day in 1851, marking the beginnings of the urban metropolis we were now leaving behind.  [Interestingly, Arthur Denny proclaimed the place "as wild a spot as any on earth"( The oldgrowth forest of Schmitz Park rising above Alki condos is the only visible connection to the original landscape.]

When we got to the Peninsula we made a stop in the town of Jamestown, the home of the S’Klallam tribe, and read the informational display that overlooks the bay. Before the trip we had read some articles and papers about the pre-colonial inhabitants of the Olympic Peninsula and their impact on the landscape. We acknowledged that we would be spending the week hiking the S'Klallam homeland, and that the concept of "wilderness" as we know it today, would have been meaningless to pre-colonial Native Americans. This visit connected the theoretical and historical way our society looks at Native Americans with modern realities.  
Jacob studies some of the excellent interpretive displays at the Jamestown S'Klallam reservation, this display documenting the many plants that the S'Klallam traditionally used. Other displays talk about the history of the S'Klallam people and their land.

We also made a snack stop for those of us who had skipped breakfast, and for the person, who will remain unnamed, who didn’t know they had to bring a lunch. At the Olympic National Park Wilderness Information Center, we squashed our food into our borrowed bear cans (designed to keep bears from getting human food, thereby keeping them wild), and then squashed the bear cans into our packs. With lots of sitting on top of backpacks, shaking, pushing, and pulling, and tying things to the outside, everyone’s backpacks were ready to go. I was trying to figure out if there was anything I could leave behind in the car, as I had finally realized that the “46” embroidered on the outside of my pack meant that it was 46 liters (as compared to the 65-70 , the recommended size). At the REI garage sale, I had thought that was, like, the model name or something.

Kramer, demonstrating how to pack a pack, before we all loaded up. We made the decision to pack at the WIC because it would likely be raining at our high elevation trailhead.

Before we left the center, a park ranger named Molly Travis came to talk to us about park management and goals. She spoke about the park’s concern with “opportunities for solitude,” and how quotas for some popular areas of the parks maintain the park’s peaceful and “wild” atmosphere, but conversely, by applying that quota, the site is seen as even more desirable and receives more visitors. As those sites grow more popular by word of mouth, equally beautiful and interesting, but less trendy sites remain less visited.

The National Park Service is mandated to preserve the wilderness resource, while at the same time allowing people to "enjoy" it--sometimes these goals conflict. In an interesting nuance to the preservation mandate, Ranger Molly Travis talks about how the Wilderness Information Center manages the land for "solitude" by imposing visitation quotas on certain areas. Paradoxically, she pointed out that quotas tend to make quota areas even more popular! She views herself primarily as an educator, rather than an enforcer of rules.

After we left the Wilderness Information Center, we drove outside of the park to reach a different entrance to get to our hike-in spot. Tim decided that our bear cans weren’t quite full enough, so he and Kramer ran into a store to buy more noodles. As we approached the entrance to the park, Tim pointed out the clear line of smaller trees right where the park ended and logging was permitted. He also hopped out of the car to take a picture of the sign for the park, which had a few bullet holes through it (see photo at beginning of this post).

Heavy rain and dense clouds as we ascend to Deer Park. Thankfully we ascended through the clouds and into clearer weather at the top.

It was misty in this part of the park and as we drove along the narrow road, occasionally another car would come zipping around the bend and I made myself carsick imagining the van rolling over and over down the steep hill. We made a final stop up high on a ridge, where we looked at the alpine plants growing in the tundra-like environment of the hillside. It was surprisingly cold outside, but after the hot car and windy road, no one was complaining. We took a few pictures of the clouds clinging to the mountains and rare Rocky Mountain juniper on the hill.

Rocky Mountain Juniper, a rare plant in the northeastern Olympics, and more common in the San Juan Islands. It is thought that this mountain top, in the northeast corner of the Olympics was ice-free in the last ice age, serving as a refuge for Rocky Mountain Juniper, which then dispersed into the San Juans as the Puget Lobe retreated. As its name suggests, it is more common east of the Cascades and in the Rockies.

Comparing the foliage of the Common Juniper to Rocky Mountain Juniper.
Astragalus cottonii, Cotton's Milkvetch, one of the rarest endemic plants in the Olympic Mountains, and a state listed threatened species, eking out a living near the junipers above. It is one of the hardest hit by non-native Mountain Goats. Near here we also found the remains of an old cable left from an era when a small ski resort was on this mountain--the Park Service's mandate to provide "enjoyment" while simultaneously preserving the landscape, has now tipped more towards preservation--perhaps rightfully so given the fragility of this environment.

Soon we were all at the camping site where we would leave the cars. We helped each other get our backpacks on. It was like a small child was clinging to my back, but with some strap tightening, I felt top-heavy, but not overwhelmed.

Hiking down through the large burn caused by an out of control campfire in the 1980s. One of the species favored by this fire was the Lodgepole Pine. It is interesting to see it taking over what was once a Douglas fir/Subalpine fir dominated area. Lodgepole Pine has cones glued shut by sticky pitch, which pop open and release their seeds when heated.

Our first hike of the trip was three or four miles down switchbacks into a valley. We had our pack flies and garbage bags securely on against the mist. Though I don’t think anyone could really get too exhausted since we were going down a hill, I had never known how tired your thighs can get when they carry an extra fifty pounds down 3000 feet. Tim stopped us to look at the different kinds of trees, and to show us places where different plants had met different fates, but as the afternoon passed to early evening we began hustling a little. I kept an eye on how everyone else was using their trekking poles – keeping the left and right pole with their respective feet, or swinging them around as a pair?
We eventually got to our campsite. As we were only a few hours from the road, there were a few other people there: two women, a mother and daughter, and a small group of boy scouts who arrived after us, and graciously camped at another site across the river from us.

Lodgepole Pine saplings coming in to this burn site (see caption above). More frequent burns, and a shift towards Lodgepole Pine forest is likely to occur in the next 50 to 100 years based on the predictions of climate models.
Kelly and I tried to figure out our REI tent, which was not particularly symmetrical or intuitive to set up. Rain was falling as we flipped it around this way and that and looked at the tent instructions, trying to decide where the poles went. We eventually got it sorted out and went to find Lucas, who was the third member of our food group, to figure out dinner. As I was going back and forth from our camp stove to the tent to find my Tupperware and head lamp, the two women, Heidi and Danielle, invited us to come hang out by their campfire after dinner. As this was one of the only days we would be at an approved elevation for campfires, and it was chilly and misty, Tim was happy to have our discussion at their campfire. At the campfire, Tim talked to us about the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) shelter that was built almost hidden under the tall, wet trees. Apparently people used to camp inside it before tent technology was as transportable and waterproof. We went around the circle to each say a little something about ourselves and Heidi and Danielle, who were visiting the Northwest, but lived in Mexico, told us about their house which was made of recycled and found materials, and which they had built to have as light of an impact on its surroundings as possible. As we talked, I got so sleepy that I found myself closing my eyes when whoever was speaking was far away (so hopefully people wouldn’t be looking in my direction.) Tim sent us to our tents with a wake up time of 8 am, which was only alarming in that Tim described this as “sleeping in.”
Campfire in front of the shelter built by CCC boys (hired by the US Forest Service before Olympic was a national park) in the early 1930s. In this small clearing, created by the felling of trees to build this CCC camp, it was not hard to understand the oppressive feeling early settlers must have felt from the forest, as they sat in small damp clearings in the darkness. For us, in this little clearing in the forested canyon of the Grand River, 3000 feet of elevation below the trailhead, it felt like we had finally arrived in wilderness after a long day of travel and logistics.

Reflection on my experience and the importance of wilderness:

In the nine days we were outside, I went to bed and got up earlier than I would ever have chosen to do on my own. The exercise and fresh air kept me, a champion napper, awake in the day, and the lack of artificial light sent me straight to sleep at night. Hailee led a discussion toward the end of the trip about the effects of time outside on mental health, which was good timing, because I had been outside long enough to reflect more on the potential ways the outside had affected me, and how it could help other people. Obviously, backpacking cannot cure all ills, but I found that I never had time to feel mopey or bored. Being busy all day with walking and chatting and looking at plants was a simple and effective way to separate myself from my usual thoughts, and worries and stresses.

Leaving the park, though, I was both relieved to be around flushing toilets and stovetops that would never be pressing into my back all day. It had been a long time since I had appreciated sleeping in a bed, that had cotton sheets and that I wouldn’t have to immediately break down and roll up in the morning. But at the same time on that car ride, I had a bit of a cynical old person perspective on technology, at least for an hour or two, before I wanted to check my messages.

But for one sunny hour, as we drove home, dirty, and bruisey, and all scratched up, but alive (and swoll, if you will) I would look at the powered down phone in my lap and, like an octogenarian or something, wonder why all the young folks are always sticking their noses in their little screens. Then, when I saw the texts from my friends and family and the news that had happened in our absence I remembered how it is to feel connected to everyone you like, no matter how far away they are physically.

I think that a lot of the American conception of wilderness is deeply twisted and problematic. For a few: our insistence that a landscape be empty of other humans to be “pure,” that we’re interested in the earth being “pure” at all, that indigenous people are often reduced to myths, legends, and improving stories of how to live in balance with nature, instead of living, breathing people who have been excluded from their previous homes by the existence of national parks, and federal power in general.  I left with a feeling of simplicity, as if I had figured out that life is not that complicated, but all the while I know that living a life that is spent in a rural area or mostly outdoors is not a signifier of an easy, trouble-free life, and as Kelly pointed out in her discussion, it doesn’t feel like a fun adventure to be forced into wild areas.

For better or worse, national parks are, to some degree, an artifice. Though at one time those plants and animals would have been there anyway, in Washington state, the reason those old growth forests and owls are there is because we wanted a place to hide, to look for opportunities for solitude, to recreate away from the bright city lights. We buy park passes and pay taxes to keep our national parks looking as though we aren’t there at all. While I loved sitting on the mountain top ridges and counting the rings on the tree stumps, we hadn’t walked into a time before modern life, but the intentional creation of the colonized, settler America we live in. 

Olympic Onion

We sacrificed one from a healthy population off-trail, for educational purposes, and made sure to incorporate it into dinner.

More imagery from the 1980s Deer Park fire.

Rocky Mountain Juniper, close up. It can be confused with Yellow Cedar, which also can grow above treeline. The foliage looks more like that of Redcedar, however.

Pinesap, a mycoheterotrophic plant (no chlorophyll, parasite on soil fungi), growing in the dark shade of dense forest recovering from the Deer Park fire.

Candystripe, another mycoheterotrophic plant (no chlorophyll, parasite on soil fungi), growing in the dark shade of dense forest recovering from the Deer Park fire.

Bark of the yew tree, a species that is unusually common on the lower section of trail approaching Three Forks.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Day 2: Three Forks to Falls Camp

By Madison Smith

The second day of the trip started in Three Forks with a lazy morning. We slowly repacked our bags. The rain held out- hooray! The two women from Mexico left for Deer Park and we had a brief goodbye with them.

The class stands in front of the shelter built by the Civilian Conservation Corps.
Before we began our day, we gathered around the fire pit. We learned about the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) shelter. We learned that FDR sent young men into the wilderness during the Great Depression to build trails and shelters and that many of these trails and shelters can be found in the Olympic National Park today. For instance, the shelter at our campsite was built by a CCC crew hired by the US Forest Service (before Olympic was a national park), and hewed from the very trees that once filled this now clearing. Recently, however, a likely protester burned down several of Olympic's shelters, possibly viewing them as antithetical to a modern vision of wilderness. The one at our campsite survived possibly because the protester knew there was not enough snow on the ground here to keep the fire from spreading--the one at our next campsite burned in the early spring when there was still likely snow on the ground, as there is no damage to surrounding vegetation.

Tim found an old rusty cross-cut saw left by the CCC at our campsite and presented it along with some leaves and lichen found in the clearing. From left to right, top to bottom: Lobaria pulmonaria (a N fixer), red alder (also Sitka alder is in the clearing), Douglas maple, and on the saw: western hemlock, grand fir, Douglas fir, Pacific yew, western redcedar.
Tim had organized the leaves and lichen in an Instagram-worthy manner and we stood around the campfire and discussed how to identify different species of plants. We learned certain identification markers like the ‘mohawk’ shape of the silver fir twig or the type of toothing on the margins of the leaves. We also learned that there is three parts to Lobaria pulmoria, aka dragon skin lichen- algae, the cyanobacteria spots, and fungi and that these different parts grow together and depend on each other to survive. The bacteria fix N from the air, and this N becomes available to the forest trees when the lichen falls to the ground.

The class crosses one of the many bridges found on the trek that day.

One of the many toppled trees that the class climbed over during our nine day excursion.
We left camp soon after our discussion and started along the path to Falls Camp. That day we crossed a lot of cute bridges and countless toppled trees. There were a several of frogs as well- most notably a couple primitive tailed frogs. Tim told us that these are somewhat rare and can only be found in and along steep streams in the forest. At another point, we found wild ginger. The wild ginger leaf had a heart shape, but when the leaf was crushed, it smelled like ginger.

A relatively rare tailed frog that we found along the trail. The tail is a copulatory organ. These frogs necessarily have internal fertilization, otherwise their spawn would be washed away in the swift streams where they breed. Tadpoles suck onto rocks with sucker mouths. This is the first of many tailed frogs we would find this year.
Near the end of the day’s hike, we entered an old growth forest. We talked about spirit organisms and spirit quests. There was a discussion about how some people, particularly the Native Americans, view plants and animals as equals, rather than just resources to utilize. Before using the plants and animals they ask permission from the plants and animals. While in this old growth forest, we also spent some time journaling. We spread out, and took some solo time to reflect on our experience in the wilderness thusfar, and what we were experiencing around us, especially what wisdom we might glean from centuries-old trees. After journaling, we continued our solo reflection time with a solo walk. For our solo walk, we hiked separately- a couple minutes distance between each hiker for about an hour.

Madeline stands at the base of one of trees in the old growth forest.

Abby journals at the base of the tree in the old growth forest.
One of my favorite parts about the trip was the journaling time and solo walks. During the trip there was always something to do so it was nice to slow down for a bit and think. I enjoyed the solo walks because there were fewer distractions and I spent more time looking around. When we were walking in the group, I tended to get caught up in the discussions around me and on solo walks, without all that discussion, it was easier to notice the bits of wilderness passing by.

A view from a section of our solo hike through an avalanche track. The patch of recovering forest across the creek was knocked down by the air blast caused by snow coming down the slope behind the photographer.
Soon after our solo walk we reached Falls Camp- the campsite where we were going to be staying that night. The site had a nice clearing by a lazy part of the river as well as several covered flat spot for tents. At the site there used to be a CCC shelter but was burned down by an arsonist.

Abby, Tim and Emi (left to right) cook dinner at Fall Camp.
That night was our first student-led discussion. We began by talking about being alone in the wilderness on our solo walk. Some people found that they enjoyed the silence and the solitude they found while being alone while others found it lonely. Then Kelly led her discussion about minorities’ access to National Parks and other wilderness experiences. We talked about why people come to the National Parks and why more white people come to the parks than other races. Some people pointed out the barriers to access- particularly time and money that prevent people from accessing the park. We talked about the legacy of discrimination found in the parks and the implicit and explicit discrimination that can be found today. Several people mentioned backpacking and our desire to pseudo-survive in the wilderness may not appeal to all people. Kelly added some of her own personal experience and pointed out that people who grew up in war-torn areas and who actually had to struggle to survive, or even escape to wilderness, may not want the pseudo-survival experience. We also brainstormed about how the Park Service might get more minorities in the park. One idea was to hire more minorities into Park Service positions because at the moment, the vast majority of Park Rangers are white.

Our first academic discussion on barriers to minority participation in wilderness recreation, around a fire in the fire ring at Falls Camp.
I particularly enjoyed Kelly’s discussion. I had always assumed that nature was one of the few places that did not discriminate and was open to everyone regardless of their background. But through our discussion and our pre-trip assignments, it has become obvious that while wilderness and the original mandate of national parks are not discriminatory, our society creates many implicit barriers (as well as occasional overt discrimmination) to participation.

The class discusses minorities and access to the parks (Minji, Hailee, Jacob, Kate, Lucas, and Emi from left to right)
The discussions we had were some of the most eye-opening parts of the trip. When I had gone hiking previously, it was just for fun and I did not bother to consider the philosophical questions that went along with wilderness. However, through the discussions, I began to consider the concept of wilderness more closely. These discussions opened my eyes to a whole new way of considering wilderness- the privilege it takes to go there and enjoy it, the gendered side of nature, and how we divide ‘real life’ from ‘wilderness.’

The Grand River joins the Cameron River in this photo, which in turn joins the Gray Wolf River, hence "Three Forks". We hiked along the Gray Wolf for most of the day. The last Gray Wolf on the Olympic Peninsula was shot in 1926.
After I came back from the trip, I realized the importance of wilderness in today’s society. For instance, my experience in the wilderness has made me more aware of my own decisions and their impacts on the environment. Sure, before the trip I knew I should make environmentally-friendly decisions, but my time in the wilderness has made the importance of these decisions more obvious. When we were hiking, I could not help but think about how Seattle once looked more like the Olympic National Park than how Seattle looks today. It is evident that while humans are so small compared to these vast landscapes, we dominate and exploit so much around us. However, the decisions we make can change how much we exploit the environment. For instance, my decision to buy something with palm oil in it has an impact on the environment. While I may never directly see this impact, it is important to recognize that it makes the impact no less real. Overall, experience in the wilderness will lead to some more eco-friendly decision practices and some more awareness about non-sustainable growing practices. I believe that if people spend time in the wilderness and directly see the impacts that humans have on the environment, that the importance of our everyday decisions to recycle or to buy sustainably-produced food will become more real to them.

Kelly, Madeline, and Hailee stand along the trail.
Wilderness is also important because it is freeing. Sure, everyday tasks are a lot harder than they are in a more urban place- hot water does not just come through a faucet, but at the same time that is what makes the wilderness freeing. Instead of worrying about missing the bus or finishing homework, the only things someone has to worry about in the wilderness are the essentials. However, that freedom is sometimes scary. Without all the clutter it is obvious just how vulnerable we are and how many security nets we tie around ourselves in day-to-day life. But at the same time, without all those security nets, life is so much simpler.

The class walks along the trail.
Personally, I also think that my time in the wilderness gave me a lot of empty space and this empty space has made me more aware of how I structure my life. In everyday life, I feel like I shove something into every minute of the day, whether it be homework, music or emails. But in the wilderness, all of that was gone and it left a big space in my life. We just had to focus on the necessities of life- water, warmth, food, and sleep. In the place of all that clutter, we placed companionship, reflection, and learning. I think that this made me aware of the value of these things and how the clutter in our lives prevents us from truly enjoying or pursuing them. As a result of this new appreciation, I want to strive to make more space for these things in my life whether that be through turning off my phone once in awhile or make the effort to look up from my schoolwork and talk to the person next to me.

Tim lies in a moss bed in the old growth forest.

Through this experience, I also learned to pay attention to the details in nature. I tend to be more of a big picture sort of person and so when I have previously spent time outdoors, I just enjoyed the views and the big landscape changes. But after this class I learned that I missed a lot by just focusing on the big picture. Where particular types of trees are, where ice worms can be found, and where types of flowers are tell a story- you just have to pay attention to the details.
There was a patch of uprooted trees along the path. This is a dynamic ecosystem.
One of our first assignments in this course was to create a definition for the term ‘wilderness’. I decided to define wilderness by two different factors. The first was that wilderness was somewhat out of human control and the second was that wilderness was rooted in nature. I wrote that humans can still maintain nature as long as it's not considered ‘civilization’. Looking back, I am not quite sure if I agree with my previous definition. One of the important distinctions that came up implicitly in our discussions during the trip was the difference between ‘nature’ and ‘wilderness’. In our discussions, nature was often considered a tamer version of wilderness and I do not think that my initial definition accounts for that distinction. If I were to do that assignment over again, I would want to define wilderness as nature with minimal human intervention and any intervention that occurs must serve to bring back wilderness to some sort of previous baseline.

Here are a few additional pictures from day two:

Pine-drops, another mycoheterotroph (see post from Day 1)

The flower of Wild Ginger.

Bunchberry, a dwarf dogwood.

Jacob journaling next to a >500 year old tree.

Emi journaling on a nurselog.

One of the giants of the forest, a 500+ yearold Douglas fir. A relict of another climate period.

Pine sap, a mycoheterotroph.

Look carefully and you can see Minji in this picture. She is journaling from a perch on a log above the forest floor.