Friday, July 22, 2016

Day 6: Sentinel Peak and 1000 Acre Meadows

By Kate Turk
Posing near the summit of Sentinel Peak, some 20 trail miles from any trailhead, with 360 degrees of mountain views.

“Good morning. Time to wake up,” Kramer melodically sang as he lightly shook Hailee’s and my tent.
“Morning, Kramer,” we responded.

As Kramer moved on to the next tent to wake up our neighbors, Hailee and I opened our eyes and unzipped our tent to expose the beauty of Dose Meadows in the early morning sun. About 20 feet away from us was a fawn among the Avalanche Lilies and Indian Paintbrushes, welcoming us to day six of our adventure in the Olympic National Park.

We all looked forward to day six because it was the start of the sunshine. After a few days of dreary rain and chilly nights, we were all excited to lay our damp clothes on rocks to dry, put on shorts for the first time, and soak up the rays.

Leaving the beautiful Dose Meadows on the morning of day 6
We also were excited for day six because it was the only day we wouldn’t be packing up camp in the morning. Instead, the plan was to take day packs, hike to Sentinel Peak, and return to Dose Meadows for another night. Tim called it a “rest” day because we wouldn’t be carrying our massive backpacks, although we soon learned that the elevation gain and trek to Sentinel peak wasn’t exactly the definition of “restful”.

After our usual breakfast of oatmeal, granola, and nut butter, everyone simplified gear, packed lunches, smeared on sunscreen, and headed out to the trail.

The early part of the hike was spent under thick tree cover accompanied by a few waterfalls alongside the trail. With 45 fewer pounds on our backs, we all seemed to have springs in our steps, and with spirits bright, we giggled all the way to the base of Hayden pass. At this base, we could see snowy mountainsides and steep paths all the way up to Sentinel peak.

We resumed hiking and trekked up to Hayden pass, occasionally using ice axes to stabilize ourselves while hiking on last winter’s snowfall. At the top of Hayden Pass, Tim explained that we were about 20 miles away from a road, which gave me a sense of unease but also a sense of thrill.

The base of Hayden Pass

Using ice axes to reach Hayden Pass

Kelly smiles at the top of Hayden Pass, more than 20 miles from any road. The road to the Dose trail is closed due to washout, effectively making that trailhead 20 miles away too 
(despite what the sign suggests).

After leaving Hayden Pass and trekking up to Sentinel Peak, it became abundantly clear that this so-called “rest” day would not be relaxing. The steep climb, sun beating down on our necks, and lack of a clear trail forced us to be acutely aware of our footing. 

The scramble was very rocky, and there was far less vegetation than what we’d been used to. We only came across a few plant species, but they seemed more special because of how their bright, delicate parts juxtaposed the rocky, harsh, hillsides. We encountered one wildflower called Spreading Phlox (Phlox diffusa), which ended up being my favorite flower of the trip.

The fragrant spreading phlox, uniquely adapted to its alpine habitat (and it also occurs in the surprisingly similar habitats of the dry shrub-steppe of the lower east slopes of the Cascades).
Agoseris glauca, var. dasycephala, also known as Pale Agoseris or False Dandelion. Unlike the dandelion we see every day back in Seattle, which is in a different genus, the leaves of this flower are covered with dense wooly hair, likely an adaptation to prevent water loss.

Collomia debelis, also known as Alpine Collomia, is a trumpet flower that grows on rocky slopes in high elevations. It's found in the alpine habitats of Washington and Oregon, and it's a fairly rare sight to see.

Douglasia laevigata, or Smooth Douglasia, sits in front of our view as we hiked to Sentinel Peak. The beautiful, magenta flowers are in tight clusters of 2-10 that shine like beacons to hummingbirds, which were also attracted to those of us wearing any red clothing on the mountain. The small waxy leaves of Douglasia are also adapted to prevent water loss in this alpine desert-like environment. We saw many of these wildflowers throughout our trip, and they never got old.
Finally, we reached the lower ridge of Sentinel, and embarked upon the last 300 feet up to the peak. The wind was forceful, and once we were at the top, the view was breathtaking. The sky was clear, and we could all see an incredible panorama showcasing Eel Glacier, Mount Olympus, Mount Anderson, and Mount Deception.

Lucas sits atop "the needlepoint"
There was one spot in particular that was the highest point on the peak, and each of us took turns standing there gazing out into the magnificent landscape. Emi described the spot as a “needlepoint” where it felt like if you slipped, you’d tumble down to your death in the valleys below.

Piper's Bellflower, or Campanula piperi,
is a species endemic to the Olympic Peninsula.
Here, the flowers have not bloomed
in its high-elevation habitat.
Atop the peak, we engaged in typical “Timming” as we ogled over a new wildflower that Tim was really excited about. This purple flower was called Piper’s Bellflower, and it’s a species endemic to the Olympic Peninsula. The flowers had not yet bloomed on Sentinel Peak, but Tim mentioned that we might see a flowered one later during the trip. It’s amazing that the flowers could survive in the harsh, alpine conditions with rocky soil and forceful wind. 

Views from the top of Sentinel Peak:
A mountain hemlock, stunted by wind, a completely different growth form from some of the tall-growing specimens down in the valley.

We all relaxed on the peak and grabbed our lunches from our day packs. In the morning, Jacob, Hailee, and I had cooked two packs (which equated to 10 servings) of tortellini, which typified our standard pasta-and-cheese-based diet during the trip. We shoveled down our tortellini in complete bliss, but couldn’t manage to finish all 10 servings. Tim, with his bottomless stomach, coyly stated after finishing his own meal, “Well, I mean, if you don’t want the rest of your pasta…”. His words can be directly translated to “OH YEAH BABY. GIMMIE THAT TORTELLINI”.

In the middle of lunch, we heard a helicopter in the park, and spotted it from afar. At first, we thought it was the goat survey. The helicopter flew right between us and the other peaks, and then strangely landed on Mt. Anderson on a promontory above the Eel glacier. Five crew exited, and walked around the glacier for 15 minutes. Then, they went right back into the chopper and hovered below us over the Silt Creek valley, for what seemed like an eternity. Tim was suspicious of what they were doing (this was clearly not a NPS helicopter doing mountain goat surveys), and our photos later helped the NPS confirm that it was a military helicopter performing illegal maneuvers in the wilderness. [We recently learned the NPS is took disciplinary action against this helicopter and crew]. The presence of the helicopter was a little shocking and disappointing, as it contrasted the pristine and natural landscape surrounding us, that we had worked so hard to get to.

At 2:15, once we finished lunch, Tim told us we had thirty minutes to reflect and write in our journals. Most of us stayed on the peak, and I lay stomach-down on the rocky ground to write. The sun warmed my black windbreaker, and the wind touched my skin softly. I felt so comfortable, and as I wrote, I could feel myself sinking deeper and deeper into the into the mountainside.

The group takes time to reflect in journals.
Kate (on the far right) is completely asleep.
All of a sudden, I awoke to a drool-covered hand and and a partially finished reflection. Madeline, Lucas, and Maddy, who were sitting right above me, giggled as I woke up in a daze. As I looked at my watch and saw 3:35, Madeline whispered, “it’s been an hour and a half”. Tim was still working away on his masterpiece, and everyone else was looking around and smiling, finished with their writings, and amused by our group’s lack of punctuality. I wrote a few more paragraphs, but left the peak with a fairly small piece of writing and imprints of Sentinel’s rocks pressed into my legs. While I wish I had remained awake to describe my deepest feelings about the incredible place, now I can assuredly say I fell asleep on a pile of rocks at 6,000 feet after eating mound of tortellini.

Emi reflects atop Sentinel with
Thousand Acre Meadows Below
“As I sat there on the rock I realized that, in spite of the closeness of civilization and the changes that hemmed it in, this remnant of the old wilderness would speak to me of silence and solitude, of belonging and wonder and beauty. Though the point was only a small part of the vastness, from it I could survey the whole. While it would be mine for only a short time, this would grow into my life and into the lives of all who shared it with me.”

—Sigurd Olson, Listening Point, 1958

Our group left Sentinel feeling wonderful. We all chatted together back down the steep, confusing trail to Hayden pass and then into the meadows below. 

At the bottom of Hayden Pass, we filled water bottles in a small stream, two miles from camp. Tim then proposed an idea to the group. He said there was a beautiful place called Thousand Acre Meadows a few miles away, and that if anyone had the energy or desire, we could take an extra hike to check it out. The hike would be completely off-trail, and while Tim was a bit hesitant about going due to how late we’d be returning to camp, said he wouldn’t regret taking the extra trip. The group’s universally fatigued legs and sore bodies drove no one to speak at first, but then Emi piped up, showing some interest. I thought back to earlier in the day, when Tim said we were 20 miles from any road, and realized I wouldn’t be back to this place for a long time. I thought to myself: if I’m all the way out here, I might as well keep going a little farther.

Emi and Kate hike off-trail with Tim
 toward Thousand Acre Meadows.
The "needlepoint" of Sentinel is in the background
Thus, Emi, Tim, and I decided to make the extra trek to Thousand Acre Meadows, and Kramer took everyone else back to camp. Being off-trail again gave me an incredible sensation. It felt like we were wandering completely at the mercy of the land, vulnerable to becoming lost, but I also felt exhilarated by the uncertain pathway to our destination. As we tangled in and out of foliage and scoped out potential routes, we had to pay close attention to our footing on the rough terrain. You really get a feel for the lay of the land and how to properly interact with it when you hike on such wild, untrammeled terrain.

It was lovely hiking with Emi and Tim. Tim told us about some of his life-changing adventures in Guatemala and Nepal, and also opened up about balancing family life with his love for the mountains. I’ve been having an incredible time here and feel so at peace, but I’ve definitely started to miss my friends and family, too. I love the feeling of being alone with the wilderness because it refreshes and recharges me, but frankly, I’m a social creature, and I wish I could share this wilderness with those I love most.

After walking for a few miles, we peered beyond a ridge covered in snow and could see the meadow. Covered by lush, green grasses, sparkling alpine ponds, and networks of interlaced streams that resembled spider webs, Thousand Acre Meadows was a scene too beautiful, too pristine, and too exquisite for eyes. It was almost overwhelming; like I couldn’t process the scene and didn’t have the vocabulary to describe it.

Thousand Acre Meadows

I still can’t believe the place is real.

As Emi, Tim, and I descended into the valley below, we separated and explored the meadows in solitude. Without another human in sight, I felt like the only person in existence. I observed the curves of the rolling hills, the energetic tadpoles in the ponds, and the edges of the streams coated in thick, fluorescent moss. Each stream was skinny and small, but the cumulative sound of moving water from each of the hundreds of streams echoed throughout the entire basin.

I continued to feel like I was in a dream. I thought to myself, “when I was atop Sentinel peak on that needlepoint, I MUST have fallen to my death, gone to heaven, and ended up here. No place on earth can possibly look this divine. It has to be a place for the gods”.

I saw Emi coming over the hill with Tim not far behind her, and we all met together to create a route back to camp. We used Tim’s altimeter and referenced Sentinel peak in the background in an attempt to get us back to the trail leading to Dose Meadows.

Kate, Emi, and their Silver Fir Friend
After scaling steep hills and slipping through tree gaps, we finally spotted the trail and headed to camp. Along the way, we spotted a huge silver fir many hundreds of years old, and we took pictures with our diminutive arms wrapped around the trunk.

As we arrived in camp, Tim said to Emi and I, “You two are hardcore”. Coming from Mr. Ice Worm himself, it meant a lot.

We proceeded to grab our dinner; mine was Phad Thai. Then we launched into Hailee’s discussion about wilderness and mental health. Everyone on the trip realized quickly that wilderness has amazing power to revitalize us. Wilderness offers renewal and it allows us to escape the monotony of our daily lives, and with this perspective, we all contributed to Hailee’s interesting discussion.

“The most glorious value of the wilderness is that in it a person may be completely disassociated from the mechanical and dated age of the twentieth century, and bury himself in the timeless oblivion of nature. Its enjoyment depends on a very delicate psychological adjustment . . . You have got to be immersed in a region where you know that mechanization is really absent, and where you are thrown entirely on the glorious necessity of depending on your own powers.”

—Bob Marshall, “The Wilderness on Trial,” Outdoor America, March 1938

Avalanche Lilies
Proven to improve mental health
In Hailee’s conversation, we first talked about research suggesting that immersion in nature affects humans’ physical and mental conditions. Scientists throughout the world have been studying markers like stress hormones, heart rates, brain waves, and protein markers in an attempt to quantify how nature affects us biologically.

In general, nature has been shown to lower stress, and those who have access to nature have been shown to recover faster in hospitals, have fewer mental health issues, perform better in school, and display less violent behavior.

In one study, scientists hooked up participants to portable EEGs and observed brain activity levels while solving problems in different environments. Some participants were in urban environments like labs or parking lots, and others had been backpacking for three days (3 being a magic number in which significant benefits accrue) wilderness. The people who had been backpacking performed 50% better on creative problem-solving tasks, and their EEG readings showed less energy output. The scientists hypothesized that being in nature allows the prefrontal cortex to rest, so when solving problems, less brain activity is needed.

Other studies reported that living closer to green spaces reduced mental distress. In England, those living in such areas reported lower rates of depression, and in the Netherlands, a study found that incidence rates of 15 diseases —including depression, anxiety, heart disease, diabetes, asthma, and migraines—were reduced for people living within a ½ mile of green space. Lower stress hormone levels have also been correlated to living close to green spaces.

In certain countries like Finland and South Korea, doctors have considered these findings, and have even started to prescribe nature instead of medication for conditions like anxiety, stress, and depression. While these systems could have a hard time becoming reputable, we all discussed that there’s huge potential with the idea.

It was interesting to hold this discussion after being in wilderness for six days. Each of us felt we could relate to the findings, and we all could bring in personal experiences pertinent to the research. In the week spent in wilderness, our disconnection from technology, industry, and urban life gave all of us peace and tranquility, less stress, and clearer minds.

After talking about the importance of wilderness for mental health, Hailee proposed that creating more accessible natural areas in urban environments could dramatically help people’s mental health. Our lives are busy, and it can be difficult to completely escape to wilderness to recharge. Sometimes, we need natural places close to our homes in order to gain a sense of peace, even if they’re not completely “wilderness”. While nothing replaces the type rejuvenating experience we had in the Olympic National Park, escapes to Anthropogenic natural environments could definitely do people wonders too.

“Wilderness is an opportunity for discovery or renewal of something already within us. You might call it an aloneness, a detachment from normal cares and responsibilities, or a renewed feeling of one’s place”

USDA Forest Service, National Forest Wilderness and Primitive Areas, 1973

With darkness and setting in, we all retired to our tents. My body was utterly exhausted, and I’m pretty sure my eyelids shut before I hit the pillow. What a dream of a day.

Final Reflection:

The nine-day journey was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. I’ve never felt so at peace, so in-tune with my self and my surroundings, and so appreciative for what I have.

There were moments throughout the trip I couldn’t believe were real. When I was slowly walking through 1000 Acre Meadows, soaking in every twist of the streams, every curve of the rolling hills, and every sparkle reflecting from the alpine lakes, I couldn’t help but gasp. How can something be so beautiful? So organic and breathtaking? Very few eyes have seen that dreamlike landscape, and and I feel lucky to be among those who have experienced such sights.

One of my favorite moments from the course was the moment when I first walked into Dosewallips Meadows. The smells from the Columbines, Avalanche Lillies, Indian Paintbrushes, Sitka Valerians, Tiger Lilies and crisp, alpine air drifted into my nostrils. I closed my eyes and took deep breaths through my nose, taking in every scent. While I breathed the clean, wildflower air, I immediately knew I’d miss it once I returned to civilization.

I feel extremely lucky to have been in the company of Tim, Kramer, and every bright, fun student. Going backpacking for nine days with friends is one thing, but being able to backpack while learning from some of the most intelligent, experienced, and interesting people is a completely different (and incredible) thing. Each day was filled with discussions about ecology, botany, natural history, wilderness philosophy, and current issues in nature, and we were constantly learning new things. I particularly enjoyed “Timming”, and spontaneously stopping to nerd-out over Pacific Northwest species. Very few people get such an educational opportunity while backpacking, and I feel fortunate to have had the experience.

While the adventure was unexplainably incredible, there were definitely some challenges. During our first few days in wilderness, my pack felt brutally heavy. With every step I took, it seemed as though my pack was biting at my hips (sore from an earlier bike crash) and hammering down on my shoulders.

Especially during the solo hikes, when there were no distractions from the group, I became very in-tune with every heartbeat, every breath, and every creak from my pack. I could feel my muscles contracting with every step, and I was very aware of the labor. But while it was challenging, the physical effort of backpacking made me very aware of myself and my limits. I developed a sense of peace with myself and my pack, and became stronger physically and mentally as days progressed. By day four, my pack became magically lighter, and I felt adjusted to the wilderness.

Challenges weren’t restricted to heavy packs in the wilderness, though. Once I came back to my home, readjusting was more difficult than I thought. After feeling so peaceful and recharged in the wilderness, I felt a bit overwhelmed by the speed and stimulation of city life. For example, the morning after returning home, I arrived to the pool where I work as a lifeguard, and felt engulfed by the noise and chaos of the scene. Small, energetic children raced in and out of the pool grounds, parents laughed and gossiped with one and other, and guards filled the office while smearing on sunscreen, selling candy, and preparing for a morning of swim lessons. After such a peaceful trip, I don’t think I was ready for that kind of pace, and didn’t know how to react at first.

The morning at the pool completely contrasted the serene mornings in the Olympic National Park. Every morning in the park was accompanied with quiet, and peace, and after feeling so relaxed for nine days, it was shocking to come back to my normal lifestyle. While I knew I’d quickly readjust to urban life, I loved knowing I could also return to wilderness to recharge if I needed it. If I ever feel overly stressed, I know I can easily become relaxed by going back into wilderness. 

Being in wilderness for nine days made me feel extremely connected to the Earth. More than ever, I felt like part of a system instead of a human going through the routines of life. Instead of feeling like the primary, dominant species, it seemed like I was part of a larger ecosystem, no different than any other organism. Frankly, every species evolved from the same ancestor, and none of us are better or more important than another.

Being in wilderness also made me consider my own habits and behaviors and how they affect the rest of the world. It’s so easy to drive to work every day, throw away lots of garbage, and live for convenience, but throughout my journey in the Olympics, I realized that my actions dramatically affect the world around me. I saw the pristine lands of the Olympic National Park, and realized that the entire Pacific Northwest used to look like it. I compared the park to the urbanized environments I know so well, and could how dramatically humans have changed the Pacific Northwest landscape within just 100 years. After observing that change first-hand, I know I’ll become much more aware of my consumption and impact on the earth.

I also realized during the trip that wilderness allows people to connect amazingly well. When people are in wilderness together without technology, social media, and other distractions, they become friends faster than in any other environment. During the trip, everyone became so close so quickly. I know I’m really going to miss Madeline “Badboy” Kernan, Emi “Granola” Schwartz, Tim “Ice Worm” Billo, Maddy “Tough Mudder” Smith, Kramer “Cranberry” Canup, Kelly “The Secret Weapon” Bounxayavong, Jacob “Winnie” Wessel, Minji “Mama” Jung, Lucas “Goat” Thompson, Abby “Chupacabra” von Hagel, and all of our adventures.