Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Day 7: From Meadows to Mountains, by Eva Barth (Student)

Day 7 marks one spectacular week in the wilderness of Olympic National Park! Never before has one week felt so long yet so short at the same time. I just opened up my journal to Day 7 to see what I wrote about the day and found this: "Today was a real B.. of a day. And of course it is my assigned blog day... I'm going to have to wait a week to write the blog post so I can forget forget the pain and romanticize my views." Apparently my foresight was correct because now, not even a week later, I have nothing but positive memories on the day and find my journal entry pretty humorous.

But on to the day! We began the morning by slightly begrudgingly packing up our camp at Dose Meadows. We had spent the previous two nights here and the sprawling meadow had already begun to offer us a sense of comfort in our nomadic trip. But after some encouragement from Tim and a big cup of oatmeal we were on the trail by 11.
Leaving our home away from home at Dose Meadow and beginning the steep climb to Lost Pass.

Although not too ambitious in mileage, today's hike provided a vertical challenge. We began by climbing up Lost Pass; a 1 mile mostly forested ascent that took us to a small meadow at 5550 feet. We paused briefly for a snack and to admire the views. We could just catch a glimpse of Sentinel Peak and Thousand Acres Meadow from the previous day. 

The view from the top of Lost Pass
From Lost Pass we followed a long winding path across the side of a mountain and began the ascent up Cameron Pass. This part of the hike was much more exposed as we crossed the tree line. After fighting through the intense sun and a few biting horse flies we successfully reached the top of Cameron Pass at an elevation of 6500 feet. We all collapsed and gulped down the now (in)famous wasa crackers and nut butter for some quick calories.  
Approaching the pass, the trail crosses a "fell field" formation or rock stripes. The patterns in the rocks are formed by freezing and thawing. The vegetation takes hold along these miniature ridges and grows in stripes on the hillside. Once one plant takes hold, the soil begins to build and more plants take hold around it, forming islands of vegetation parallel to the rock stripes of the fell field. Alpine plants invest much of their energy into a woody perennial root system, while remaining low to the ground to avoid exposure to wind.

Goofing around at the top of Cameron Pass, while being buffeted by strong winds.

After lunch Tim lead an ecology lesson at the top of the pass. We dropped our packs and headed even higher to study the landscape. We were in an arctic tundra and many of the species can be genetically connected to arctic plants, as they arrived here during the last Ice Age. Plants were scarce and all very low to the ground to protect themselves from the harsh winds. The deep freezing of the ridge top throughout much of the year, and general freeze/thaw action had formed a peculiar rock formations called rock polygons and rock stripes respectively. We saw several of these geologic arrangements at the top of the pass.

An alpine ecotype of Yarrow found on Cameron Pass
Northern goldenrod with an unidentified checkerspot butterfly
Photo credit- Tim Billo
An alpine/arctic Sandwort, Minuartia rubella or close relative. Rubella is circumboreal found in the arctic, and in arctic-like conditions on mountain tops further south.

Tufted saxifrage (Saxifraga cespitosa) has much the same distribution as the Sandwort above. In the Olympics, this species forms dense, spiky mats of leaves.

Rock Polygons at the top of Cameron Pass, characteristic of ground that is frozen for most of the year, and similar to rock polygon formations that can be found in arctic landscapes.
Photo credit- Tim Billo

We set up camp for the night in the Cameron Basin near the source of the Cameron River (the same river we camped next to night 1 nearly 18 miles away). Many of us immediately thought of the spot as inhospitable. It was a large barren area, directly at the base of the pass and covered in gravel. Although unlike anywhere I have previously camped, this night turned out to be one of my favorites. We passed up on tents and instead bundled up in our sleeping bags and mats in a big circle. This proved to be well worth it later in the night when we were greeted with a vast and spectacular patchwork of stars over our heads.
Beginning the trail descent into Cameron Basin. A small snow field on the right had all the signs of recently being a small glacier, including lateral moraines on either side.

The trail wound down through recently deglaciated terrain. Our campsite ended up being this side of the moraine visible on the valley floor (a patch of willow bushes is in front of the moraine). Can you see our group looking ant-like on the winding trail below?
More Olympic Mountain Groundsel.

Our campsite in Cameron Basin. A "rock glacier", a tongue of a remnant glacier smothered in rock, is visible just behind camp descending from the ridge above. The basin was full of signs of recent glacial activity, including especially some very recent activity in pockets near the ridge. Further south along Cameron Ridge there are several large active glaciers, although they are retreating fast.
After some serious carbo-loading at dinner (we finished all of our remaining pasta dishes) we shifted into evening discussions. Kiley began  by leading a talk on the problem of invasive and sometimes violent mountain goats in the park. We discussed various action plans ranging from no action to complete eradication, and the consequences to endemic vegetation of "no action". Eradication is more complicated than it seems, however, and would probably require the use of helicopters, which among other things, are illegal under the 1964 wilderness act and impinge on the recreational "wilderness" experience. The highlight of the evening (and perhaps the trip) came when Kiley acted out various "unacceptable aggressive goat behavior". After lots of much-needed laughter we shifted into Maddy's discussion on the "Human-Nature Dichotomy". It has been an ongoing theme of the trip to address how humans fit into nature (and wilderness in particular), or if they even do at all. The class suggested western religion as a possible explanation to our separation and the Man vs. Wild mentality.

Kiley showing Shane his best impression of an aggressive mountain goat. As we sat in a circle during our next discussion, led by Maddy, a merlin flew rapidly over the moraine behind us, and chased a flock of pipits up into the shaded cliffs of the cirque, where it alighted on a ledge in the shadows.
Photo credit- Tim Billo 

We ended the day by watching the alpen glow on Cameron Peak, and the sunset over the mountains to the northwest, an experience that silenced the entire group for over 30 minutes, as we stood stunned by the slowly evolving and ever more sublime palette of colors and textures that unfolded before us.

Sunset from the moraine behind camp. Look carefully, and you can see the stunned and silenced group in the foreground. We were all left speechless as this sublime sunset unfolded before us, probably the most captivating moment of the entire trip. Photo credit- Tim Billo

The following personal reflection on this experience and wilderness in general is taken almost directly from my Day 6 solo time journal entry. I believe that this is the best way to share my true thoughts and raw emotions, unfiltered by time or the return to society.

I sit here in arguably one of the most amazing places on Planet Earth. In the middle of a meadow literally surrounded by peaks thousands of feet high. I took off my boots and I’m basking in the warm sunlight while picking fresh huckleberries from my perch on a rock. And you know what? It’s peaceful. I am at peace with myself. It is that point where physical exhaustion and mental relaxation come into balance. And I have wilderness to thank for that.

Wilderness is beautiful. It is glorious and breathtaking. The power and vast size of it has subdued my own importance. But not in a diminishing way. Instead in a way where I see how I fit into this world. Too often I am too caught up in my own life to remember the big picture. I’m always in my own head, always worrying, always thinking ‘what’s next?’ Always somewhere to be and something else to do. This escape to the wilderness has been just that; an escape. Even if it is just momentary, I am free from the constraints of my life. This is not a resort, I am still challenged. These hikes are almost beyond my physical ability/endurance and often I want to stop. But I push on. And overall this experience is amazing. I love it. Who knows what my future will hold in terms of backpacking but I am grateful for this opportunity right now.

So that is one current use of nature- the rejuvenation of people. Only wilderness offers us a true change of pace away from the constant connectedness to others we maintain through modern technology. Wilderness can connect us back to our origins. As Thoreau said; simplify. I fully support pursuing technological advances to live a comfortable life but I also see the importance in remembering what is a necessity and what is extra. It is when we forget this that we as humans start to treat nature as belonging to us, instead of us to it. In nature I am out of my element yet somehow completely in it at the same time.

In the age of the Anthropocene we also must not forget the intrinsic value of wilderness. Wilderness is natural. It is the world as it exists on its own. It houses millions of distinct biospecies. We are just one of these millions of unique creatures that make up nature. Some say evolution has favored us but that is not how evolution works. We are no more special or evolved than any other extant species. I think that we owe it to this earth to leave some wilderness untrammeled by humankind. I can’t imagine that anyone could sit exactly where I am sitting right now and imagine changing the land in any way. But then again, I’m sure Seattle looked similar to this many years ago before settlers, and I am beyond grateful for my comfortable home and life there. So now comes the challenge where we as humans have to step back and catalog everything that we already have. Hopefully we realize that we can make do with the land that we already have and leave the remaining wilderness unaltered.