Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Day 6: Our Journey to Sentinel Peak and Thousand Acre Meadow, by Natalie White (Student)

Thursday. The sixth day of our trip and our second day at Dose Meadows! This was certainly one of my favorite days for a number of reasons. As the only day that we didn’t have to pack up our tents and gear, our “rest” day began on a good note. After a quick breakfast of ever familiar oatmeal and granola, we set out for Sentinel peak – the very same peak we could see from Gray Wolf Pass just a couple days earlier and, as it happened, one of the only places Tim hadn’t yet experienced. Having the ability to point out various mountain peaks and passes that we were heading toward during the trip was amazing and definitely made the experience that much more memorable. Around 10a.m. –  a good hour or two before we had typically set foot on a trail – we were on our way to Hayden Pass, with 45 fewer pounds on our backs! Along the way, we came across a bridge made with plywood and metal – a burst of technology far surpassing the typical logs we had encountered thus far. Just after we started our ascent to Hayden pass, nearly all of us took a good 10 minute break to feast on the extensive blueberry plants along the hillside. The rich flavor of these blueberries, reminiscent of apples or pears, puts the store-bought variety to shame. Begrudgingly, we resumed the climb to the pass, where Tim explained that we were about 20 miles away from a car in any direction. It’s such a mind-blowing concept to be so far away from civilization as very few people get the chance or have the motivation to be so disconnected from everyday life.

The view across 1000 Acre Meadows, a pristine landscape we would visit later in the day, with the triangular shape of Sentinel Peak in the background left, and Hayden Pass, the lowest point on the ridge in the background middle, > 20 trail miles from any road.

 After leaving Hayden Pass and heading toward Sentinel Peak, it quickly became clear that this so-called “rest”day wasn’t very restful. A steep climb, with loose rocks, and brisk winds accompanied us up the mountain. This climb would’ve been so much harder with our packs on though! Because Tim was unfamiliar with the route and a clear trail was nowhere to be found, our ascent was a little more exciting as we didn’t entirely know where we were going or the safest/most efficient pathway. Although the vegetation wasn’t as abundant here as it was a few hundred feet lower, subalpine fir trees were interspersed along the terrain, although few had reached significant height. We took another break from our upward trek to observe the beautiful golden eagle soaring among the trees below us, likely scouting for unlucky marmots. The breadth of its wingspan and the signature white markings on the tip of its tail solidified its identity. Such an amazing sight! Resuming our journey, we happily discovered how close we were to the top. As we rounded what we thought was the final corner, however, we soon realized the top was another 200 feet of steep incline away – a trek that didn’t deter us as we embarked on the final stretch. The view from the top was incredible: definitely one of the most breathtaking views of our trip.

The group poses near the summit of Sentinel Peak. The Eel Glacier is in the background. Comparing this image to the historical photo below, it is easy to see that Eel Glacier has shrunken in thickness and that the smaller glaciers on either side of the main body of the Eel have shrunken and become detached from the main body of the Eel. Were we to have seen the snout of the Eel, we probably would have noticed some loss of length as well.
Eel Glacier 1959, photographer unknown, courtesy of

Eel glacier was positioned directly in front of us, and while it has definitely suffered extensive ice reductions (as we could see from the historical photograph Tim showed us), it is still an impressive glacier and certainly one of the most intact examples we observed during our 9 days here. Mount Olympus was also very visible, although the typically snow-covered mountain is predominantly clad in blue ice – emphasizing just how minimal the snowpack was this year. We could also see Mount Anderson beside Eel Glacier, along with numerous other peaks, together culminating in a beautiful panorama of mountain peaks. As we ate our lunch atop Sentinel Peak, small gusts of winds began hitting the mountain side, creating small tornado-like pockets of wind. Small and large rock fragments were collected by these mini tornados and spun around, occasionally hitting us. While a little scary, these small tornados definitely added something to our experience! It’s fascinating to watch nature do its thing! We also got to see a few patches of Piper's Bellflower - a beautiful purple flower that remains low to the ground, with small, thick leaves to protect itself from dessication by wind and other harsh conditions of this alpine environment. As a species that is endemic to Olympic National Park, this flower was a real treat to see! It's closest relative is far away in a mountain range to the north. Piper's Bellflower probably migrated here in some earlier ice age and diverged from its closest relative over thousands of years. Before leaving Sentinel peak, we made sure to take a picture of the group, which required a few attempts for Tim to make into the frame before the 10 seconds ran out!
Nick peering in the Silt River Valley, and the patchwork of forest on the far side of the valley, recovering from various avalanches of different intensities and at different times over the years.

Piper's Bellflower (an Olympic endemic) at the summit of Sentinel Peak!
Bumblebees are one pollinator (perhaps the only one) of Piper's bellflower. We also saw solitary wasps visiting the flowers.

Hiking down the ridge of Sentinel, with Mt. Anderson in the background.

Eva and Alexandra catch up on journaling on the ridge of Sentinel.

Alpine Collomia, a beautiful flower of the eastern Olympics.

Pacific Stonecrop on the slopes of Sentinel, one of at least 3 species of Stonecrop we encountered on our trip. The succulent leaves preserve moisture in this windy, dry environment, yet they somehow avoid freezing damage as well.

Olympic Mountain Groundsel (Senecio neowebsteri), on the slopes of Sentinel. Another Olympic endemic. The dark, tightly clustered leaves can warm up and trap warm air on cold days in the spring, enabling photosynthesis.

After heading back down to Hayden Pass, we pondered our next move. We could either stay near here or travel to Thousand Acre Meadow – another place that Tim had yet to explore. In spite of the fatigue in my legs, I decided to make the trek with the realization that I probably wouldn’t have the chance again for some time. The growing blisters on my feet started screaming not long after we commenced our journey to the meadow and I’ll admit I was just a little disappointed that we had not yet reached our destination after we crested the first ridge. A quick jaunt around the corner, however, brought us to Thousand Acre Meadow, after a blue grouse sighting, a photo-op with gentians, and the crossing of a couple small streams. Stretching out before us, with peaks bordering the entire landscape, was our destination. This place was unlike anything I’d ever seen. With random pockets of trees, occasional boulders, beautiful streams, and relatively uneven terrain, this wide-open meadow seemed to beckon us with adventure.

Nick posing with his favorite flowers, the Bog Gentian.

With a good hour and a half to explore, reflect, and just take some alone time, I headed down the cliffside and journeyed over to a small cluster of trees. Having just been in open grass, this small tree grove offered what seemed like a whole new environment. Amidst the subalpine fir trees, was a small stream containing several levels, making it reminiscent of a small waterfall. I found an accommodating rock near the stream and took a few moments to just take in my surroundings. After a few minutes, I began to journal and to my pleasant surprise my pen just took off across the page. Gone were the typical pressures associated with writing and in their place was an energy entirely indebted to the beauty around me. I felt so comfortable in that moment and so inspired, which allowed me to truly reflect upon my experiences. While I have loved so many aspects of this trip, I have to say that solo time was certainly the most valuable as it was during these times when I felt most capable of experiencing the wilderness in Olympic National Park.
First view into 1000 acre meadow. Next we had to seek a way through the cliffs and down into the meadow.

Shane preparing to journal from a vantage point over the meadows.

Nick journaling above the meadows.

The view of Thousand Acre Meadow from an unnamed and trailless pass which we used to approach this open landscape.

The small stream that I sat beside as I wrote in my journal during our solo time. Photo: Natalie White.
Panorama of 1000 Acre Meadows. Photo: Shane Kelly
The Olympic Marmot. Marmots had created hummocky networks of burrows in parts of the meadow.

Beginning the steep bushwhack out of the meadows, through brushy terrain.

Finally back on trail as the sun is setting (hidden below the luxuriant growth of Dose Meadow).

After meeting up around 5p.m., Tim, Nick, Shane, Kiley, and I started our journey back to camp, although we remained in solo mode until leaving the meadow in order to “keep the feeling going” as Tim remarked. Along the way, I ran across a small pool of shallow water, filled with tadpoles. I had never before seen so many tadpoles in one place! Definitely an amazing sight. After reuniting as a group, we began to scout for the best route home. A task that ultimately required some trial and error along with bushwhacking! As we bushwhacked our way back to the main trail, it suddenly donned on me that this was how early wilderness goers and settlers made their way: traveling without established trails or signs, equipped with only their own intuition and skill. In that moment I felt like a true outdoorsman! With camp just ahead, the pain my legs and the ache of a sunburn caught up to me and I felt very happy to be back at camp in spite of the amazing day I had had. After a yummy dinner of spaghetti noodles with pesto sauce, we launched into Joe’s discussion.

Tonight’s discussion was all about Aldo Leopold and the land ethic. I had been wondering when Leopold would come up! Joe asked us to consider how feasible or possible it would be to incorporate a land ethic into the structure of society and how we could go about doing it. Many of us emphasized the importance of a top-down approach as this may be the only means of implementing any sort of a land ethic on an influential scale. Education was another significant suggestion, particularly primary education as this would allow students to gain an exposure to nature and the conditions of our environment early on in their lives. This soon led us to a discussion of the various outdoor camps, field trips, and in-class activities we participated in as kids, and it quickly became apparent how variable the level of environmental education is depending on location, income, etc. This begged the question as to how do you reach everyone who may not have the funds to engage in environmental education? I think this is a really important problem as it  serves as a reminder that a land ethic, while certainly vital to us, is not necessarily on peoples’ radar. Many people struggle on a daily basis just to feed their families and survive day to day. The time and money required to consider the environment, in this way, is limited or altogether absent. Tim then went on to emphasize the role that social status plays in our lives in the way that our reputation is vital to our understanding of ourselves and our place. And yet we are very unaware of the true impacts of our economy (that which gives us our social standing). We don’t know where the gear we wear everyday out here comes from, which begs the question if knowing those impacts would make us more responsive and aware of our environmental situation. If our society and economy weren’t structured in such a secretive manner that only considers the value of the final product, perhaps more people would consider the ramifications of our lifestyle.
Joe leading a discussion on the development of environmental ethics. Here, he is quoting from Aldo Leopold.

With darkness falling on us and exhaustion setting in, we all retired to our tents. Miranda and I decided to leave our rain fly partially off for the night to see the stars. And while I got to see a few, my eyelids wouldn’t stay open long enough to view the full expanse of the night’s stars. What an amazing day!

As to my thoughts on wilderness and its relevance today, I think it’s best to turn to some of the thoughts I jotted down while soaking in the beauty of my surroundings at Thousand Acre Meadow.

Right now I’m sitting in the heart of Thousand Acres Meadow. Young silver fir trees surround me, along with a beautiful little stream fed by a small waterfall just a few meters away. The beauty of my surroundings astonishes me. No matter how many images or descriptions I’ve read, being out here reminds me that there is nothing quite as impactful as what is right in front of me – the real thing. I feel so calm and at peace here, as though everything is somehow right in the world. It doesn’t get much more real, pure, simple, and beautiful as this spot and I feel so lucky to be able to experience this right now. In class, I constantly feel bogged down and disheartened about the world when we’re told how dire and pressing our environmental situation is that I forget there is some good, beauty, health, and renewal in this wonderful place I’m sitting in. If nothing else, wilderness offers renewal. It offers hope when we forget there is any. And more than anything else, wilderness offers contrast from which to examine the choices we make in the world in which we live. I think people need this place – they need an escape from the monotony of their everyday lives. They need the wisp of the wind, the high-pitched chirp of a marmot, the gush of a stream, and the expanse of mountain peaks to remove them from their own reality and remind them of the power and beauty of wilderness and the prevalence of nature.

Ever since we arrived, I have relished in the beauty and purity around me. I absolutely love not knowing what time it is or who won the game last night. These constructs into which we continually place ourselves back home fall away and we are forced to contend only with what we truly need, which in my opinion allows us to better appreciate our lives and realize how deeply valuable nature is. Wilderness, in this way, is a reminder of the power and sacredness of our environment. I certainly do agree that wilderness is a human construct and I think it’s invaluable to remember the importance of the land that we occupy in our urban, rural, and suburban settings. To this end,  I agree with some of the authors and critics who hold that culture has embraced wilderness as the purest representation of nature – an understanding that is certainly problematic as it, to some degree, forgives us of our abuse of those lands that support civilization. I don’t want wilderness to be used as a reason not to protect or conserve other lands, but rather as a motivation for protecting the wider arena of nature – a term that must incorporate where I sit now as well as my home, my work, my favorite park, etc. Nature, thus, is everywhere. It’s in the wilderness, in the trees in front of my apartment, in the products produced by society – it’s in every aspect of our lives.

The key is balance: finding a way to incorporate nature into our culture without the destruction of either one. It’s also a matter of perception, which is so culturally-rooted that progress often seems unattainable. As we become more and more glued to our electronics and our own private bubbles, we exclude nature further from our lives – this needs to change and I think one way to do this is through classes like this. Classes that allow students to experience wilderness first hand and ask thought-provoking questions as to the value and relevance of wilderness. I do understand the fear that as more people come out here, the likelihood of having a wilderness experience is reduced. I don’t really have an answer to this. All I know is I feel more alive and more motivated to help the environment right now than I have in some time. Hope, renewal, motivation, and beauty awaits anyone who comes here.

More photos to come...
-by Natalie White